After island hopping around the South Pacific for a month, I finally joined my friends, Julie and Dustin, in the Solomons. We originally met while snorkeling with the humpbacks eight years ago, and every few years we end up in another part of the world together, usually on a dive boat live aboard. After a few days in Honiara, we boarded the Taka along with 12 other guests.
Our pick up took place at 6pm at the Coral Sea Resort, though was slightly delayed due to the rainy weather. Lupa had us sign waivers in the pavilion while Adam coordinated both the transport of our bags in the tender to our boat, as well as the transport of the passengers. When the rain decreased to a sprinkle, the crew zipped back and forth in the tender, taking about four of us at a time to our home for the next week.
On the Boat
As with all live aboard boats I’ve been on, the first order of business is to go through emergency procedures. After a brief visit to our rooms, we congregated at muster station 1 on the second level of the back deck. The instructions came in handy the following night when the fire alarm went off at 2am. Fortunately, it turned out to be false.
Anyway, after, our drill, we went our separate ways, unpacking and familiarizing ourselves with the boat. The Taka is an overhauled fishing trawler operated by Solomon Islands Dive Expeditions. I didn’t learn of the operator until talking with the co-owner Chaz, who was onboard.
The reservations are taken by Master Liveaboards which is merging with Blue O Two. As a result, I received all sorts emails prior to departure which prompted me to ask who runs the MV Taka which is also called the Solomons PNG Master.
The MV Taka
Regardless, the sturdy boat features a spacious dive deck. Bins for our fins, booties and other wet stuff sat below our tank while a rack extended above our tank for any dry clothes and towels. Our skins and wet suits hung near the FIVE bathrooms and showers on the back deck while a camera table filled the middle of the deck.
While the boat is well configured for diving, the configuration for lounging and comfort is lacking relative to other live aboards I’ve been on in the Red Sea and the Maldives. The temperature in windowless salon was close to that of a refrigerator. I’m not exaggerating when I say I regularly donned my puffy that I wear during the winters in Denver.
As a result, I seeked other places to relax. The second level on the back deck was really the only spot. While we did enjoy our last meal there, it’s hardly large enough for all guests to fit comfortably. The sundeck on top was spacious though it was off limits during transit, HOT when sunny, and wet during the almost daily rain showers.
While I like my alone time, the thought of lounging in my coffin like room on the bottom deck was not appealing. Speaking of rooms, the lower level bunks do not have an en-suite bathroom. Somehow I managed to overlook this when I reserved my spot during a 40% off flash sale. I suppose for a $1,400 discount, I could walk up the stairs to the dive deck bathrooms, but it wasn’t my favorite activity in the middle of the night.
The upper level rooms, however, do have bathrooms as well as a controllable air-conditioning unit and windows, both missing from the bottom bunks. They might be the most comfortable place on the boat, and I suggest booking early to get one. Though there can be some foot traffic around them. While I can’t rave about the accommodations, I can rave about the crew and the food. They were the finest of any live aboard I’ve joined.
The Cruise Directors
Adam and Carmen, the dive and cruise directors, were simply amazing…friendly, available, and beyond competent. Adam generally conducted the daily announcements. He addressed our schedule which sometimes changed due to a forming cyclone as well as most dive briefings. He briefed us on each site, any possible currents, as well as any related World War II history.
Carmen coordinated our diving groups and addressed the marine life at each site which not only gave us things to look for, but also taught us (or at least me) a lot about the tendencies of different fish. I really enjoyed her talks, and probably should have pursued being a marine biologist back in the day. Oceanography was always my favorite class in college.
The rest of the crew was also excellent, and I attribute the spectacular service impart to the humor and passion Adam and Carmen added to the atmosphere. In fact, despite the overhauled fishing boat’s shortcomings, the Taka is ranked the number one live aboard in the South Pacific. There is only one reason for that…the onboard crew and amazing food.
I thought I might have liked the food so much because I finally got to eat three good meals a day after spending a month island hopping with limited meal options. Not so, everyone was raving about it. Freddie and Max prepared a sumptuous spread for every meal.
The breakfast buffet included bacon, eggs, veggies, fruit, beans and homemade bread along with gluten free options. Lunch and dinner featured chicken, pork, beef, lamb, meatballs, potatoes, pasta, vegetables, salad, dessert and lots of super fresh fish, specifically a huge mackerel that the staff bought from the locals. They prepared that fish every way possible..grilled, fried, and raw!
In fact, much of our food was very fresh because the staff acquired it from the locals as we travelled from province to province. They were careful to purchase from each canoe of kids who visited us in order to spread the money around. There was never a shortage of bananas, coconuts, papaya and mango.
The Diving in the Solomons
Of course while the excellent staff and food were a bonus, diving is the primary objective for anyone who signs up for a dive boat live aboard. The Taka’s itinerary took us from Guadalcanal to the Central Province to the Western province of the Solomons. We visited multiple islands in each province.
Our daily schedule generally included four dives, but not always. Typically we awoke to a light breakfast, completed dive 1, ate a full breakfast, completed dive 2, chowed on lunch, completed dive 3, had a snack and completed dive 4 at dusk. Once we replaced a dive with a village visit, and occasionally we missed a dive due to weather or did a night dive instead of a dusk dive.
The diving included WWII wrecks, open cuts and caverns, and reefs, though most of the dives were centered around coral and marine life at all depths. We approached the dive sites every way possible. Sometimes we used the giant stride technique off Taka’s back deck, while other times we loaded into tenders for a backwards roll. It was my first time to do a live drop where the boat continues forward as divers jump from the side one by one. The “James Bond” entry as Adam called it was kind of fun!
We exited the dive sites in various ways too. Sometimes we simply swam to the boat while other times the tender towed us on a trailing line. Occasionally, we gracefully heaved ourselves into the tender as well. And of course, I lied, it’s never graceful. We look like flopping seals.
The Dive Crew
While I mentioned Carmen, Adam and the chefs, I have yet to mention the dive crew. I’m running out of descriptive accolades. They were superb. Betty and Rita brought us our own personalized water cup before and after every dive. On colder days or during longer breaks between meals they gave us hot chocolate or coconut water. The girls also provided towel service. We started each day with a dry towel which they hung up on the sundeck after each time we used it. This service was on top of their cabin duties.
The boys on the boat were also awesome. The engineer; Rob, the captain; Jackson, and mates; Hugo, Willie, Richard, and one other deckhand whose picture wasn’t on the wall, all pitched into our diving endeavors. They motored us to sites, collected our fins and cameras, and regularly helped us in and out of the boat. Sometimes they even strapped our fins on for us and dried our camera lenses. Seriously?!?
The dive masters, all top notch, included Carmen, Adam, Lupa, Alphones, Sophie and Albert. This trip was Adam and Carmen’s last on the Taka and Sophie and Albert just joined to be the new cruise directors. For the first two dives, we dove in two large groups separated by nitrox divers and air divers. The dive masters assessed our abilities and air intake and then split us into five smaller groups, two nitrox, two air, and one for new divers getting certified with Chaz.
Our Dive Group
Our nitrox group included Julie, Dustin, me, and Libby, though Libby sometimes did a dive with Adam to complete her photography certification. As a result, when our group dropped down to three Aida, despite diving air, joined us. By the end of the trip, we all five dove together regularly, and had a great group.
With only 175 dives, I was by far the novice in the group. Libby, Aida, Dustin and Julie all had over 1,000 dives, and I’m likely short changing them by another 1,000 or more. Libby was the queen of photography. With her solo diver certification, she went along on her own while capturing countless photos. I learned a few Lightroom tricks from her.
Aida, who was a dive master in Thailand, was an expert nudibranch spotter. I love nudis and was happy to follow her around, though she usually brought up the rear. I also learned about the app Dive+ which edits underwater photos to nearly professional standards.
Dustin likes the big stuff and has Superman vision, so he always pointed out sharks and rays at the edge of sight which I never saw since I wasn’t wearing my contacts. Julie, always the quiet and polite one, is the same underwater. She hovers just behind the action and calmly adjusts her camera lens with a squeak, squeak, squeak as she snaps lovely wide angle photos of wrecks.
We dove with Alphones for our first three days, and he was spectacular. Twenty-six and a master swimmer, he led us slowly along the reefs pointing out special creatures along the way. He quickly noticed what we liked photographing and catered to our interests. He never rushed us, and while we explored gardens of staghorn coral, he patiently waited to the side while floating with perfect buoyancy.
The fourth day, he wasn’t our leader. I assumed he was getting a break as many of the dive masters were recovering from a cold and finally able to get back in the water and clear their ears at depth. When he wasn’t our dive master the fifth day, I asked about him and learned he was sick, presumably the same cold as the crew and now guests (including Libby and Julie).
Sadly, however, his illness was much more severe. Unbeknownst to us until after our trip, he contracted dengue fever for which there is no cure, was flown to the hospital in Honiara, and later passed away leaving his wife and 18-month old child behind. I felt really sick to my stomach when I learned this.
I just can’t believe I was diving while he was suffering. I can’t believe, out of all of us, he was the one to get bit by the rotten mosquito. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the Just Giving fundraiser page for his child’s education on my post. Any support for this amazing, young man’s family is appreciated during this difficult time.
Speaking of support, I would like to acknowledge Solomon Island Dive Expeditions (SIDE) for supporting the local crew on the boat. This company pays for any of their staff’s dive training, all the way up to dive master. As such, from the captain to housekeepers, any of them may get certified up to the highest level. What a great opportunity the company provides for the islanders of this very poor nation.
Alright, enough about the boat, the crew, the process, and our groups…where did we go and what did we see?!? As I mentioned previously, we were picked up at the Sea Coral in Honiara, the capital of Guadacanal. We motored northeast across the Iron Bottom Sound, so named for all the WWII wreckage, to the Florida Islands where we completed four dives.
These dives ranged from 15 to 100 feet. They included a small wreck, a plane, and all sorts of marine life and coral. A few highlights at these dive sites were a rare eel sighting, a spotted ray, and black worms mating.
In addition, the Maravagi dive site would be the only site of the 20 or so we visited where we would see the saddleback clownfish, who incidentally aggressively defended its anemone home on the sandy ocean floor while waiting for its eggs to hatch. Snapping a photo proved a challenge as it attacked the camera.
From the Florida Islands, we headed west across the Iron Bottom Sound to the Russel Islands where we dove eight times and visited a local village.
These dive sites included quite a variety. White Beach was US military base. Uniquely, there isn’t a white beach. The bases in the Solomons were named red, white and blue. When the war ended, the troops dumped their equipment into the sea. The site features collapsed pontoons surrounded by trucks, barrels, ammunition and even a forklift.
In addition, the site is teaming with marine life including a few pair of gobies and shrimp with their symbiotic relationship, clams, nudibranch, cardinalfish, cowrie, and a mantis shrimp. The surprise on this dive, however, was the crocodile skull!
While normally I wouldn’t discuss each dive site, these dives each featured something special, and thus deserve recognition.
Rainbow Reef, was just that a beautiful reef of colorful corals and fish. Home to the usual marine life, I might not have mentioned it accept upon surfacing we were treated to a magnificent rainbow that stretched across the surface of the sea. I’ve never seen a rainbow so low or with such little arc. It was so cool!
We dove Koramulon Reef near dusk, thus were treated to more special experiences. Fish spawned near the surface as did a sea cucumber that was sticking straight up from the coral. Crinoids, that usually wrap themselves in the coral during the day crawled across the reefs. One even swam! We even spotted a slipper lobster. A great dive! If only I had a strobe for my camera to help in low light.
The following morning we dove Leru Cut. One word…amazing! It is a deep cut in the island. In order to conserve bottom time, we dove it shallow as we ventured inward toward the jungle which we surfaced to see. After which, we returned to the entrance where we explored the wall with an electric clam, butterflyfish galore, jawfish, cuddlefish, barracuda, trevally, the white bonnet anemonefish, and even a lobster.
While not as spectacular as Leru Cut, Mirror Pond was an exhilarating dive just knowing it was possible, though unlikely, to surface in the jungle next to a crocodile. I was sure not to be the first person. Tracy wasn’t there, however, so after a short time at the surface we continued our dive admiring enormous seafans, moorish idol, and a single juvenile bicolor parrotfish. It’s hard to believe the orange and white baby turns into a multi-colored pink and green adult.
While the diving in the Russell Islands was spectacular, so was the visit to Raymond Island. It was worth replacing one dive with a visit to this local village which Carmen and Adam have developed a special bond and for that matter a symbiotic relationship. The Taka relies on the village for food, while the village relies on the Taka for supplies.
Chief Raymond greeted each and everyone of us as we exited the tender and introduced ourselves. Once everyone reached the island, he escorted us to the common area where young girls, adorned in beads stood in a line. We lined up across from them and when signaled, they stepped forward to present each of us with a lei.
The welcoming continued with traditional dances and music. The men donned facial and body paint while they clapped, chanted on stomped their feet. Then musicians paddled their drums and blew into pipes as the ladies, in grass skirts, put on their show. While all of it was great, the music was incredible. Watch and listen!
After the ceremony, a few in our group handed out a variety of gifts to the kids like candy, pens, and balloons. In addition, Libby, who had been on the Taka previously and knew the ropes, presented the village with a suitcase of useful items like school supplies which they cannot get easily.
In fact, the kids take a 30 minute boat ride to another island for weekly boarding school once they turn ten. In the meantime, they learn reading, math, and other subjects in their open air elementary school. In addition to daily school, church is held twice a day, at six am and six pm. We learned all this while Chief Raymond toured us through his village. What a treat!
Overnight we crossed to Mary Island where we got one dive in before diverting to Wickham Harbour in the Western Province as the winds from a forming cyclone were threatening to vessel travel. Underwater, however, the currents that were expected to require a reef hook, did not exist. Of course, I left my camera behind out of caution, and have no pictures to show for the six nudibranch, two octopi, and schooling barracuda and jacks that we saw at Barracuda Point.
At Wickham Harbour we dove a Japanese Freighter home to many small critters including shrimp, nudibranch, longnose hawkfish, and the treasured pymgy seahorse. These seahorse are tiny and best viewed with a magnifying glass or zoom lens. What a thrill to see! Curious batfish and lionfish also hung around in the murky water.
Our final dives in the Western province took place in Marouu Lagoon, Mbulo Island, and Penguin Reef. I didn’t think any dive could top Leru Cut, but I was mistaken.
Fortunately, the weather gods were on our side, and Adam, being a photographer, planned our dive at the Cathedral during spectacular morning light. Sun rays penetrated the maze of swim throughs that led to a breath taking sight. Again, we surfaced in a garden before continuing on the see giant clams and magnificent corals.
Other sightings on these dives included turtles, shrimp, a curious cuddlefish that unusually followed us, nudis, bannerfish, butterflyfish, blennies, sharks close enough for me to see, the true clownfish, a massive school of barracuda, and of course several sea stars that basically accompanied every dive.
On two of these dives, we had the freedom to dive on our own which was a nice option. And on the final dive, because we were not catching a flight the next morning, we were one of the few people even diving. The second to last dive, however, was the funniest for our group.
The Lucky Ones
This was going to be most people’s last dive due to the 24 hour rule limiting divers from flying within a day of being underwater. As a result, Carmen scheduled the three other groups in front of us since they were approaching deadlines. Generally, our group went first and were the last to surface.
Dustin jokingly, put his hands underneath him and said to me, “I guess I’ll have to sit on my hands.” I whispered, “Yes, I know. I feel like we’ve had preferential treatment and have gone first 80% of the time.”
Carmen noticed us quietly consulting and asked with concern, “Is that OK?”
Laughing, we responded, “Of course it is, we’ve been incredibly lucky to go first so often!”
She said, “You know why. You are always ready. It makes it easier for me and speeds up the process.”
It was true. We always checked our nitrox during our downtime rather than after the dive briefing, so we were always geared up and ready to go. Sometimes the early bird does get the worm!
Overall, we had a great dive trip in the 83° waters of the Solomon Islands. Many divers only needed a skin, though the cold-natured folks resorted to wet suits. In addition to the great diving (at least for those who like little stuff), we enjoyed a lovely group of passengers.
Of course unbelievable underwater sightings are the pot at the end of the rainbow for divers, but the top deck also beholds the beauty of nature. We witnessed super sunsets, spinner dolphins flipping out of the water (video), and other dolphins swimming with the bow of our boat.
In addition to seeing the world’s wonders, we met wonderful people. Half the passengers were from Australia, while the other half came from the USA and England. Two people were celebrating birthdays while another couple got engaged. And one diver completed his 300th dive. Freddie and Max we’re constantly baking cakes! What a joyous week with a fun group of people.
While we were sorry to bid farewell to Taka, we have left with some new friends, amazing memories, and more adventures awaiting us in Munda on New Georgia Island. To be continued…ETB
Other Posts About the South Pacific You May Like
- Three Day Itinerary for American Samoa
- Upolu’s Southeastern Coast
- Three Days in Tonga
- Three Days in Tanna
- Four Day Itinerary for Espiritu Santo
- Three Days in Efate
- Four Days in Munda
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